Got that size 42-long green jacket pressed and ready for Tiger Woods to slip into? Better have some big red numbers ready at the leader boards in case he goes really low. Never seen a game so sharp. Just make sure he gets to the Butler Cabin as soon as he signs his scorecard on Sunday.
Yes, the stage is set for Woods to win for the second time at Augusta, but before you empty your wallet on a wager—assuming you can find someone to bet against Tiger—here is a short history lesson on the potholes that can occur on the road to a Masters victory, and there's no better person to base this primer on than Jack Nicklaus, who has more green jackets than Brooks Brothers.
Law of Averages. Nicklaus won six times between 1963 and 1986, which averages out to once every four years. That means that three times out of four, Jack didn't win. Tiger may be the heavy favorite against, say, Davis Love III or Phil Mickelson, but if someone offers Woods against the field, take the field.
The Ray Floyd Factor. Sometimes another player, in this case a Hall of Famer, happens to have a career week. In '76 Nicklaus was, as usual, the prohibitive favorite in the Masters, having won his fifth green jacket the year before and his second Players Championship a month earlier. He opened with a 67 at Augusta and followed with a 69, putting him at eight under par after 36 holes. Eight under is often good enough to win a Masters, but that year it put Nicklaus in second place, five strokes behind Floyd, who went on to win in a then-record-tying (Jack's record) 17 under par.
So to win this year (or any year), Woods must not only play well, but also hope he doesn't run into a player who holes every putt all week, like Hal Sutton did at the recent Players Championship. In short, Woods needs to be lucky. Nicklaus finished second four times and, curiously, his stroke average on those occasions was fractionally better than it was for the six times he won. His problem was that three of the times he finished second, he was up against Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson (twice), players who won 15 majors between them.
Up Pops the Devil. Golf, as Woods knows, is not an exact science. In '67 Nicklaus went to Augusta having the year before become the first player to win two consecutive Masters. He would win five tournaments that year, including the U.S. Open. He was such a favorite to win a green jacket that this magazine ran him on its preview cover, just as it did Tiger a week ago. What happened? Nicklaus had a lackluster 72 in the opening round, then sprayed balls all over Georgia in the second, shooting 79 and missing the cut.
The same sort of lightning bolt struck him six years later. In 1972 he won the Masters and the U.S. Open and was second at the British Open. He began the '73 Masters with a 69, then birdied the 1st hole the next day. The sun was out, there was no wind, and the course was damp from an overnight rain. A score in the low 60s seemed possible, maybe even probable. But hard as it was to believe at the time, that 1st hole was Nicklaus's only birdie of the day. He shot 77, and even though he finished with a flourish, he wound up tied for third. Ah, that could never happen to Tiger, you say. Probably not, but....
The Duval Disappearance. Surely you remember David Duval? Won last year's Mercedes Championships and shot 59 to win the Hope. When he added the Players Championship and the BellSouth Classic, he became the second four-time winner going into the Masters. He was No. 2 behind Woods in the World Ranking for a good part of that time, but everyone, players included, said that the ranking was skewed, that Duval was clearly the best player in the world. That was just a year ago.
Now Duval, winless since then, seems to be on a golfing leave of absence, and everyone is saying Woods is the best player in the world. Well, he is, no doubt about it, and perhaps he is on his way to becoming the best player ever. However, if by some chance he misses the cut at Augusta, you now know it's nothing that hasn't happened before.